The rains this past week had been both a blessing and a curse for Cara Atwater. On the one hand, her raincatchers were full to bursting and now hung from the roof, sagging like stuffed potato sacks. On the other hand, they were not built to be full to bursting, a thing Cara learned when one of them tore open and dropped water down on the bed of the truck she was sleeping in.
That is why Friday morning found Cara fifty feet in the air, dangling upside down from the rafters of her home as she sewed up a busted seam in one of the ten large, brown leather sacks that hung from the ceiling.
Her hands worked quickly and confidently with the leather needle as she stitched up the bottom of the burst bag. Water dripped from her soaked brown hair, still wet from the five gallons of rainwater that had rudely woken her up. The downpour from the night before had dwindled to a meager pitter patter, but it was still enough to drip down through the raincatcher and out onto Cara, who often had to stop to wash the rain from her eyes.
And as if that wasn't bad enough, once Cara finished patching the raincatcher she had to go down and dry the bed of the blue pick-up truck she slept in. The thing was so old the slightest amount of moisture would rust the metal if Cara didn't dry it quickly.
"Oh well," Cara thought, looking at the rest of the raincatchers hanging from the ceiling like humongous bats. "At least now I won't have to go to the well for a while." She finished putting in the last stitch, reattached the hose that connected the raincatcher to the sink faucet down below, and swung around to sit on the wooden beams right side up.
The rafters Cara sat on were relatively new when compared to the rest of her home. Her father, Dean, had replaced them when he first moved into the abandoned church with Cara's mother, Ilia. In a way, Cara was lucky to have such a large home- most of the residents in Haywater lived in apartments in the buildings surrounding the town center and the well. In the wide open space of the church, Cara was able to store and tinker with the various scraps of techno junk that littered the alleys in the outskirts of the city.
Cara loved junk and it was lucky for her that there was no finer collection of junk in the world than in the alleys of Haywater. These alleys, as they were called by the denizens of Haywater, were long, labyrinthine pathways that were created by thin spaces in between piles of discarded and (more often than not) useless junk. Junk (not garbage, the residents of Haywater were frugal out of necessity but they were not bums) was left in giant piles leaned up along old, derelict buildings. Cara liked to imagine how these buildings must have looked before they were abandoned, the shine of the smooth stone outshone only by the window panes illuminated in brilliant sunlight. Of course the ground would never have seen sunlight—these buildings once stood a hundred stories tall to make room for the tens of billions of people who covered the earth—but the very tops must have looked like beacons of starlight. Cara liked to think that hundreds of years ago, back when the rooms of these buildings were packed to double capacity, the people must have found imagining a world inhabited by the few thousand people that were still alive now as difficult as it was for Cara to imagine their world. Perhaps they only thought about that possibility when it was too late. Maybe if they had thought about it sooner they wouldn't have wasted the world away to the desert it was now.
Cara shook herself out of her reverie. She remembered one of her father's sayings: "Thinking about 'what if' is as useful as a turkey worrying about the gravy it'll be served with." And just as well, she still had to get down and dry off the truck.
She sure-footedly walked across the wooden beams and to one of the many gizmos her father had built with her. It was a pulley system, a makeshift elevator to help her get up and down from the rafters. It was very simple and in fact took a much shorter time to make than it did to collect the supplies for it, all of which came from old bicycles she had found in the alleys with her father. They had collected the chains from about a hundred bicycles and had created two, triple-ply lengths that stood about a foot apart from each other and reached from the ceiling to the floor. In between these two chains was a mechanism made up of three gears and a set of bike pedals. The top gear was connected to the bike pedals and another gear below it, which was connected to one of the chains and the bottom gear, which was in turn connected to the other chain. The mechanism was attached to a square platform, made from the metal frame of a bike, and was just large enough to hold one person. Turning the bike pedals would either raise or lower the platform, depending on which way the user was going.
Cara began cranking the pedals forward and slowly descended to the floor. On her way down she passed by a large boarded up window. The frame had once held a large pane of beautiful multicolored glass, but that was long before her mother and father had moved in. Most of the windows had been shattered at some point in time but there were still chunks of glass that her father was able to salvage and store. Cara was still waiting to find something to use them for but she wasn't very sure how to handle glass and was afraid that if she tried to melt it down she would ruin it. Almost all of the windows now had metal shutters that rolled up when a cord dangling at their side was yanked, allowing Cara to protect her home against the elements while still enjoying the sunlight on a warm day, yet another luxury the people living around the well did not have. The only problem was the horrendously loud noise they made when they were pulled open or closed. It was louder than when a chunk of building would dislodge and fell down into the rubble of the alleys and she was sure it could be heard throughout the entire city.
The only two windows without shutters were the one she was passing now (which had a large chunk of the stone frame missing and so had to be boarded up) and the largest window at the very back of the church which had somehow managed to survive the ages. That window was Cara's favorite part of her home. It was made up of hundreds of panes of colored glass, ranging from blue to yellow to red and back, casting a dazzling array of light on the floor of the otherwise brown and gray scheme of the church. It was a large portrait of a woman in robes tenderly holding a child in her hands, as Cara imagined her mother would have held her had she survived giving birth to her. On nights when the moon was full she would douse the lanterns that hung around the church and climb into the rafters, looking down at the shadow of the glass as it moved across the church floor. When it reached the pick-up truck she would walk over to her lift, go down to the ground and fall asleep in the bed with the painted shadow still over it.
Bah! That damn truck. It was more of a hassle than it was useful. Cara had already taken the wheels off and turned them into the tables that could be found around the room. She had tried melting down one of the rubber tires to see what she could make of it. She still shuddered when she remembered the suffocating black smoke that filled the church and caused her to run out, sputtering and coughing worse than that truck must have towards the end of its use. The other three tires were stacked and hidden in the basement of the church, which was only accessible by a trap door in the ground you could get to by unlatching and lifting the bed of the pick-up. Cara might not have known how to work rubber, but she knew that it was valuable. If they were ever spotted during an inspection from Center soldiers they would be seized immediately and in their place would be left a beating or a lessening of rations. Probably both.
But at one point the trucks granted them by the generosity of the Center had aided the people's lives. The people were desperately in need of transports, especially during the biting cold of the northern winters, and these ancient wagons were all that worked well enough to push through the mounting snow.
The engines had been modified to run on sanctum, the all purpose oil rationed to the cities by the Center. But while the Center granted each city a truck (two for the larger ones further out) it provided no extra rations of sanctum to be used as fuel, leaving the cities to decide whether the truck was worth the chance of running out of oil. During the ends of the winter months, when wood was in short supply, unlit streets and windows were the tell tale sign of a city that had overused their truck in order to reach a supply of wood and had no more sanctum left to use for their lanterns. Cara's best and oldest friend, Anne, who ran the bakery in town, had once visited friends in Dussanun, one of the northern cities, and was caught by an unexpectedly early winter, forcing her to stay north for the whole season. Dussanun hadn't prepared in anticipation of the early winter and so the townspeople were forced to burn through much of their sanctum going back and forth between the woods and town in the early days of the cold, before the snow had a chance to pile up and put excess strain on the truck.
"The town's spirits always lifted when the truck came back with its bed sagging under the weight of the wood," Anne had said. "It meant warmth for another few days. But with each coming day, the food became drier and more and more lamps went unused until the only light from the town came from the rooms where the fires were burning. And the lamplighters, of course."
Haywater was lucky enough to be one of the cities furthest south and did not have to worry about winters as cold as those in Dussanun. The trees just outside the city stretched as far as the alleys themselves, ensuring that the citizens of Haywater would never be in short supply of kindling. Had the people needed to traverse the alleys to get to the woods then the truck would have been invaluable, but the path the Center had already created in and out of the city to allow troops to quickly travel through made walking to the forest all too easy. Why would the people waste their precious sanctum on something they didn't need? And so the truck was abandoned, a relic of the wasteful times that brought the world to what it was now, and when one day Cara's father decided to take the truck as his own the town didn't mind.
What Dean Atwater wanted with the old truck Cara didn't know. Now all it served as was a bed to sleep in and another chore to add to her schedule. She grabbed the broom by the sink and, after drying her hair off with a towel, climbed onto the bed of the truck and began sweeping the water off the metal and down onto the stone floor. She had already taken the pile of sheets that made up her mattress off the truck and hung them up to dry on a wire towards the back wall of the church. Once the majority of the water had been removed from the bed she grabbed a few towels and rubbed the bed down until she felt anymore would begin stripping the paint off.
Just as Cara finished pushing the water on the floor to the drain in the corner where she showered, there was a knock at the door. Cara dried her hands off and walked to the door. Looking through the peephole she saw a wrinkled old face smiling at her from a raincoat. Cara opened the door and stepped aside to let the man in.
"You're going to let an old man catch his death out in the rain like that? I thought you'd have at least learned some manners from those old books of yours," the man said, pulling off his hood and revealing his wispy white hair.
"Hello to you too, Grenner," Cara said. "Cutting it a little close aren't you?"
"Aye, sorry about that lil miss. It doesn't do well for me to be out too long in this rain. My bones are aching from this drizzle – can you imagine me trying to make it through that hurricane yesterday? It was a nightmare enough lamplighting before the storm set in."
"Why not send Jonas over? Wasn't he supposed to come with you?" Cara asked.
"And the last time, and the time before that," Grenner said, scowling. "Good for nothing if you ask me. Half the day he lazes about at home and the other half he does his lazing in the streets. I tell you, you've got more man in those scrawny girl arms of yours than he does in his whole pudgy body."
"True, but if he'd come instead who would you have to complain about him to?"
Grenner let out a coughing laugh. "Just let me take that dolly off your hands and I'll be on me miserable way. It's bad enough coming all the way out here without me missing the delivery too."
"Well just bring me a smaller pile on the way back and save yourself the trouble," Cara said.
Grenner let out another wheezing laugh. "And spend what little use I have left of me bones bent over two shares of the pile? Not on your life. Now hurry up or I won't vouch for you at roll call."
Cara walked over to the side of the pick-up where she kept her dolly under a tarp and pushed it over to Grenner.
"Thanks, lil miss," Grenner said, heaving as he pushed the dolly ahead of him through the door. "Before I forget, I've got a delivery from Anne." Grenner reached into his raincoat and brought out a small lump wrapped in white napkins. "She made me promise not to tuck into it on me way over, and I swear I haven't. Check it for yourself and see."
Cara unwrapped the bundle and found herself holding a blueberry pastry – her favorite sweet from Anne's bakery. She gave the loaf a once over jokingly and looked back up at Grenner.
"True to your word, old man," Cara said as she broke off a piece of the pastry and handed it to Grenner. "It's not often you come by friends of your caliber in these trying times."
"Thank ya. Just be sure to tell her that," said Grenner, putting his hood back on. "I swear that harpy has it out for me. Gets meaner every time I see her." Grenner walked over to the dolly and made to push it out of the door before he stopped and turned around. "Say, what's the date today?"
Cara shifted her feet slightly. "April 24th. Can't you keep track anymore?"
"The 24th," Grenner said, not acknowledging Cara's slight jest. "You'll be going to see your father then?"
"Yes, today'll be the day," Cara said. Grenner pulled the piece of pastry Cara had broken off for him and made to hand it back to her.
"Best save this for him then," Grenner said. "Tell him it's from old Grenner." Cara shook her head.
"You know he won't like that. Imagine what he'd say if he were to find out I was wasting food on his account. No, best you save that for the return journey when you bring me my share of the pile." Grenner put the pastry back into his pocket.
"Well, give him my regards all the same," he said, pushing the dolly out into the rain. "I'll see you later on, lil miss."
"Take care Grenner." And with that Grenner walked out of Cara's home and into the rain, heading back towards the well.
Cara walked back inside and closed the door behind her. She laid the pastry on the car wheel table she had near the back wall and let the smell fill the church while she got ready to head out. She hopped quickly into the corner she used for showering and turned the nozzle on the hose hanging from one of the rain catchers above. Cold rainwater poured out across a tire rim she had attached to the spout and flowed over her and out through the drain to the outside. She grabbed one of the few dry towels she had left after this morning's clean up and dried off.
After grabbing a change of clothes from the front seat of the truck, she put on her raincoat, cut off a slice from the pastry, and walked out into the rain.